Comedian Of Many Faces
British Comedy Program
by Albert Moran
Thanks to his work in television, especially The Benny Hill Show, Benny Hill is the most universally recognised of British comedians. However, what most audiences outside of the United Kingdom know as The Benny Hill Show, was in fact a compilation series of 111 half-hour episodes, composed of sketches and numbers drawn from his British ITV series produced over a 20 year period from 1969 to 1989, and syndicated on American television from 1979 onwards.
This series picked up a cult following, making Hill the most popular British comedian to appear on U.S. television. The compilation series was sold in over 90 other foreign language markets, including Russia and China, that normally did not buy British comedy. However so much of Hill's series was based on sight gags and humour that audiences in many parts of the world came to appreciate the comedy. In point of fact, the early series of The Benny Hill Show appeared on the BBC. Hill's television career was launched in 1955 and his show ran, off and on, on the BBC until 1968 with a brief season with ATV in 1967. In 1969 he moved to Thames Television and it was there that he was to make the programs on which most of his fame rests.
His early work was inventive local in its references. Some of the BBC shows are fondly remembered for his many inspired and usually hilarious impersonations of such icons of British television such as Hughie Green (of the talent series Opportunity Knocks) and Alan Wicker of the travel/foreign correspondent series Wicker's World. The Thames series was quintessential Benny with the cherubic/budgy Hill dominating sketches, slapstick routines and silent film type pantomimes of comedy and sight gags. Hill was adept at buffoons who on a slightly closer inspection turned out to be both sly and lecherous. Indeed lechery and smuttiness were a hallmark of many of the shows, in which tall, beautiful girls were constantly being chased or ogled by Hill and a group of stereotypical males such as Henry McGee, Bob Todd, Jackie Wright and Nicholas Parsons. Wright in particular, as the small, bald man, invariably cropped up in a comic fire brigade or as a cowboy in various of the slapstick sketches. Hill himself often played a series of stock figures such as the short-sighted Professor Marvel, a cowboy, Captain Fred Schutle and a member of the fireman's choir. His characteristic trademarks included a broad accent, whether Southern American, Devon or other "British" versions, an oafish salute and often a jacket buttoned too tightly across the chest. His songs and rhymes were rendered with the look of a happy idiot that constantly broke into a leer.
Although all his material was original, Hill nevertheless owed a comic debt to U.S. entertainer, Red Skelton. Like Skelton, Hill worked in broad strokes and sometimes in pantomime with a series of recurring comic personae. Hill even adopted Skelton's departing line from the latter's 1951-71 network program: "Good night, God bless." However, Hill was without Skelton's often maudlin sentimentality, substituting instead a ribald energy and gusto. ~Albert Moran~